American oceanographers, in their effort to probe the globe's final frontier, used to have to get by with whatever tools fell their way--used ships discarded by the Navy and castoff equipment from all manner of sources.
But a few years ago, oceanographers got their act together and formed the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), consisting of 57 academic institutions and laboratories involved in oceanic research. What came out of that joint effort is the most sophisticated oceanographic fleet in the world, with 27 ships--most of them just a few years old or completely refurbished for modern research--stationed at 19 institutions.
Already, though, this achievement is coming undone.
The initial transformation came about because the institutions were willing to put the needs of the entire community above their own. The design of new ships, for example, and where they were to be based were determined by peer review. Thus, any addition to the fleet met the specific needs of the community at large, not just a single university.
On any day, these ships can be found scattered around the world, studying subtle changes in ocean temperatures that can influence weather patterns thousands of miles away, or probing deep-sea ridges where continents are pulling apart, or sampling organisms that tell much about the health of the oceans.
Unlike in the old days, the ships are equipped with the most precise navigational instruments available, plus modern computers and a wide range of pricey instruments that the old guard could only dream about.
And then, in the words of John Orcutt, director of the Cecil and Ida Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, "it started falling apart at the edges."
The first institution to bolt was the University of Hawaii, which found itself faced with losing its aging ocean research vessel, the Moana Wave, due to be decommissioned next year. Hawaii was rebuffed by the consortium when it came up with a design for a replacement ship.
Shrinking budgets had the consortium projecting a whopping $18-million shortfall in annual operating funds by the end of this century. Most members of the consortium felt the scarce funds would not support another new ship.
Hawaii took matters into its own hands. Legislation introduced in Congress called for construction of a ship to replace the Moana Wave, and it specifically "earmarked" the new vessel for the University of Hawaii.
Other institutions were furious, but Hawaii has not backed down.
"This school is one of the five largest in the country, and it would be a mistake for Hawaii not to operate a research vessel," says Barry Raleigh, dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii.
Raleigh says that without a major research vessel, Hawaii's oceanographic program will collapse, and he vows to fight for the replacement even if it means Scripps or the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has to give up one of its.
Orcutt sees the move as an end run that could jeopardize the health of the fleet. Raleigh sees it as possibly the only way for a university situated on an island 2,000 miles from the mainland to maintain a viable oceanographic program.
Meanwhile, the economic woes of the consortium have worsened. About 75% of the funding for the fleet comes from one source, the National Science Foundation, which has its own economic problems. So the consortium is aggressively seeking to expand its financial base by compelling other federal agencies to abandon their own ships and contract with the academic fleet for oceanic research.
One major target is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to many oceanographers, NOAA's aging fleet is so poorly maintained and inadequately equipped that it ought to be scrapped. Congress has been reluctant to provide any funding to replace or modernize the fleet.
Agencies such as NOAA, NASA and the Coast Guard could expand the "user base" by contracting with the consortium, thereby bringing in new funds from agencies other than the National Science Foundation. But that's a tough sell.
Agencies like NOAA relish the independence that comes with operating their own fleets. There's no need to mesh their programs with the needs of the overall community, for example. And the loss of its own fleet would diminish an agency; empires would fall.
So no solution is easy. Some people, and some institutions, are going to pay a high price.
"I don't see any alternative," Orcutt says. "I don't see large amounts of new money coming into the system for the next five to 10 years, and in order to maintain competence and leading-edge research facilities, we are going to have to make these difficult decisions.
"We just don't have the funds any longer to support every ship that everyone would like to have."
Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org